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Peace Corps Volunteer Discusses Work in Ukraine


A UK grad is back after a Peace Corps assignment to Ukraine.  She talks about her experience with WUKY's Chase Cavanaugh.

The situation in Ukraine has captured the world’s attention.  Many are focused on the politicians, military, and outside agitators.   But Reporter Chase Cavanaugh has the details on a more human perspective.

When people think of America’s involvement  in Ukraine, most  frame it as a matter of geopolitics.  They think of it as a great struggle between NATO and Russia, an East-West clash for regional influence.   Yet for all the rumors of CIA-backed coups and a Second Cold War, more benign actors are often ignored. 

Gwen Schaefer is a Peace Corps Volunteer and University of Kentucky graduate.  She went to Ukraine last September, but was recently evacuated.  Although she and other volunteers weren’t in immediate danger, Schaefer says the decision was appropriate.

“Peace Corps Ukraine basically made the executive decision that with President Yanukovich leaving and there’s a power vacuum, best to err on the side of caution," she said.

She taught English to kids in 8th through 11th grade.  While the hours were long, and the work taxing, she greatly enjoyed working with them.

"They had their trying time, as any teacher will say, but there’s just so much fun and optimism and excitement getting to work with the American," she said. 

Outside of classes, she helped Ukrainian English teachers with their curriculum and arranged several after school activities.  Schaefer says this is normal of Peace Corps volunteers.

“We do lots of needs assessments for our immediate communities.  They tell us what they want us to do, we see if we can make that happen, and we work on a lot of extra goals."

One such goal was clearing up stereotypes  about Americans.  Some were obvious, such as obesity and extreme wealth, but others took her by surprise. 

“We smile all the time on the streets, they’re like, are these like goofy idiots or what is it? You can spot the America n from a mile away if they always smile at strangers.  Whole things like that.  They go both ways, though.  They’re more entertaining than anything else," she said. 

In the process, Schaefer cleared up some of her own preconceptions.

“There’s kind of this stereotype about Ukrainians and other people in the post-Soviet world, where they don’t smile on the street, maybe darker colors and stuff, and it’s like should we be afraid of these people?  And definitely not.  Once you get to meet them and talk to them, they are some fo the warmest people you’ll ever meet who will literally give you their own shirt off their back even though they have very limited resources," she said. 

She also got to experience Ukrainian cuisine, which is highly seasonal. Since Schaefer lived there in the winter, much of her meals contained root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots, often pickled.  One dish in particular was a challenge.

“The quintessential Ukrainian test of an American with food is eating something called salo, which is like pig fat, essentially.  Sometimes it’s slightly cooked and sometimes it’s really not.  The thing they love to do is give the Americans a bit of salo and see how they react to it.” 

Overall, she considers the Ukrainians a very resilient people, particularly with the current crisis.

“Their country has had one thing after another happen to them before independence and post independence, and yet they continue to get up every day and try to make the best of the situation,” she said.

Following her evacuation, Schaefer hopes to get Americans better informed about Ukraine, in the same way she reached out abroad.

"Obviously, most Americans do not know much about Ukraine, so starting with things like calling the country Ukraine, and not The Ukraine, baby steps like that, so that’s something we’re all trying to stay sane and busy while we’re all here in America," she said. 

With luck, Schaefer will get to return to Ukraine, where, like other Peace Corps volunteers, she will advance the organization’s mission of peace, direct aid, and cross-cultural understanding.

Chase Cavanaugh first got on the air as a volunteer reader for Central Kentucky Radio Eye, a local news service for the visually impaired. He began reporting for WUKY in February 2012, after receiving his Master’s degree from the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.